Formula and “Fixity” in South Slavic Oral Epics: A defense of South Slavic poetic verse against literary accusations of mechanicalism

Lai-Tze Fan


As the South Slavic oral epic originated in a primary oral culture – a culture that is unaffected by literacy – and as it is composed through repertorial formulas and themes, it may find itself subject to misunderstanding by literary minds, particularly through accusations of mechanical composition. This paper aims to argue that an idea of “fixity,” with regards to the South Slavic oral epic’s formulas and themes, is flawed when one considers the culture from whence it came. I examine the necessity of formulaic repetition in the South Slavic oral culture of the 1930s-1950s, arguing that, without literacy and the possibility of record making, repetition was the only method through which their history and culture could be preserved.
Drawing from Albert Lord’s study of the South Slavic oral epic, this paper establishes that while still existing in a primary oral culture, South Slavic poets interiorize formulas and themes until they are synonymous with reflexive speech. In order to demonstrate this, this paper explores the way in which a South Slavic boy learns to perform. I examine John Miles Foley’s delineation of the South Slavic decameter, which the South Slavic boy must learn as the foundation of all future lines of verse. I also demonstrate the efficiency of this foundation by studying substitution systems in epic verse; the mastery of substitution results in an instantaneous composition of song that is only possible through the interiorization of its elements.
This paper then considers the term homeostasis, which in the case of this verse, refers to the obsolescence of irrelevant cultural matter. Using a case study, I analyze a singer’s substitution of obsolete themes and formulas with ones of then-contemporary relevance, arguing that the formulas easily adapt to change. The South Slavic oral epic is thus not mechanical, but a naturalized art form.

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ISSN 1920-0323